Teaching students with intellectual disabilities
There are many specific techniques that can help in teaching students with mild or moderate intellectual disabilities, but most can be summarised into three general strategies as follows:
1. Give more time and practice than usual to the student.
2. Embed activities into the context of daily life or functioning where possible.
3. Include the student in both social and academic activities.
Strategy 1: Give more time and practice than usual to the student
If a student has only a mild intellectual disability, he or she can probably learn important fundamentals of the academic curriculum, e.g. basic arithmetic and basic reading.
As a result of the disability, though, the student may need more time or practice than most other students.
A student may know that 2 + 3 = 5, but need help applying this math fact to real objects. The teacher or teaching assistant might need to show the student that two pencils plus three pencils make five pencils.
Giving extra help takes time and perseverance for the teacher and can try the patience of the student. To deal with this problem, it may help to reward the student frequently for effort and successes with well-timed praise, especially if it is focused on specific, actual achievements.
“You added that one correctly”, may be more helpful than “You’re a hard worker”, even if both comments are true.
Giving appropriate praise is in turn easier if the teacher sets reasonable, ‘do-able’ goals by breaking skills or tasks into steps that the student is likely to learn without becoming overly discouraged. At the same time, it is important not to insult the student with goals or activities that are too easy or by using curriculum materials clearly intended for children who are much younger.
Setting expectations too low actually deprives a student with an intellectual disability of rightful opportunities to learn, a serious ethical and professional mistake (Bogdan, 2006). In many curriculum areas, fortunately, there already existing materials that are simplified, yet also appropriate for older students (Snell, et al., 2005). Special education teacher-specialists can often help in finding them and in devising effective ways of using them.
Strategy 2: Embed activities into the context of daily life or functioning where possible
One basis for selecting activities is to relate learning goals to students’ everyday lives and activities, just as a teacher would with all students. This strategy addresses one of the defining features of an intellectual disability; the student’s difficulties with adapting to and functioning in everyday living.
• When teaching addition and subtraction, the teacher could create examples about the purchasing of common familiar objects (e.g. food) and about the need to make or receive change for the purchases.
An adaptive, functional approach can help in non-academic areas as well.
In learning to read or ‘tell time’ on a clock, the teacher should focus initially on telling the times important to the student, such as when he or she gets up in the morning or when schools starts. As the teacher adds additional times that are personally meaningful to the student, he or she works gradually towards full knowledge of how to read the hands on a clock. Even if the full knowledge proves slow to develop, however, the student will at least have learned the most useful clock knowledge first.
Strategy 3: Include the student in both social and academic activities
The key word here is inclusion: the student should participate in and contribute to the life of the class as much as possible.
The student should wherever possible:
• Attend special events (assemblies, field days, educational excursions) with the class
• Take part in whole class games
• Take part in group assignments within the class
The changes resulting from these inclusions are real, but can be positive for everyone:
• The changes foster acceptance and helpfulness toward the child with the disability.
• Classmates learn that school is partly about providing opportunities for everyone and not just about evaluating or comparing individuals’ skills.
• The changes caused by inclusion stimulate the student with the disability to learn as much as possible from classmates, socially and academically.
• Group activities can give the student chances to practice social skills, e.g. how to greet classmates appropriately or when and how to ask the teacher a question.
These are skills that are beneficial for everyone to learn, disabled or not.